Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday April 3, 2007
NASCAR continues to demonstrate that motorsports fans still have an appetite for auto racing on the types of tracks that date back to the very inception of auto racing in America. It’s evident the mouths of those fans are still watering after back-to-back races on two of NASCAR’s classic short tracks, Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, whcih left fans on their feet to the tune of breathtaking finishes. Their excitement is no surprise; numerous fan polls have indicated that if they were given a choice to view a race live at only one track, Bristol’s .533-mile bullring would win by a wide margin. That is a pretty good endorsement for this type of racing that should be found in or around communities across the nation. At least, that’s what one would think, right? Given the expressed love affair that the reported 70 million citizens of the NASCAR Nation have for short track racing, such tracks would be naturally popular around the nation, profitable business ventures for everyone supporting them. However, nothing seems to be further from the truth.
In my work travels, I make a concerted effort to visit local tracks forâ€¦well, some local racing, and I was particularly excited to be scheduled for an extended stay in the San Francisco Bay Area, the region of the country that I was raised in and spent the first 22-years of my life in before migrating to the Gulf Coast of Florida, more than 30 years ago. It was a life that consisted in a large part to traveling to local racing venues in the Bay Area and California's central valley with my father, as he competed as a driver and car owner / builder in various classes of racing. With this particular visit, I had planned to catch an early Spring race at a track I hadn't visited in previous returns to the area, but had at the top of my list for this visitâ€¦Stockton 99 Speedway. However, I was about six months too late, as the track billed as the oldest track operating west of the Mississippi had been closed and bulldozed last September. The 20-acre site that once accommodated up to 5,000 spectators had been sold to land developers to become part of a 300-acre, 1,500-home subdivision. Certainly, not a unique cause for the demise of a local track…but disturbing news nonetheless.
The closing of Stockton 99 Speedway on a personal level was sad for me. The track, which opened in 1946, saw future open-wheel and Indy legend Billy "The Kid" Vukavich, Sr. win its inaugural race, and can legitimately claim to have had most all the West coast greats compete on its quarter-mile, high banked asphalt…including 99's 1977 track champion and NASCAR great Ernie Irvan. For me personally, it was one of the few tracks I accompanied my father to that he had once competed at in the by then long-defunct Roadster class of racecars. I loved to hear him and his racing buddies reminisce about their exploits up and down the west coast from Seattle to San Diego during the '40's and early 50's, before the inevitable responsibilities of being "family men" caught up to them and changed their vagabond ways.
But now, the track is gone, joining a long list of other Bay Area tracks that have disappeared and leaving me with only my memories. I suppose it is inevitable that all things come to an end, but where will the racing memories for future generations come from if these tracks continue to vanish without any new ones built to replace them?
Unlike most other tracks that I frequented in my youth, Stockton 99 Speedway was a NASCAR-sanctioned local track. It was also the only paved track anywhere close to the highly populated northern California region. It wasn’t just a "jump on the bandwagon" associate of the most popular sanctioning body in American auto racing, either; 99 Speedway had been affiliated with NASCAR since 1955. It was a fifty-one year marriage that ended due to a more profitable real estate transaction that never raised the eyebrows of NASCAR's hierarchy. The closing has resulted in there being no NASCAR sanctioned local asphalt tracks within reasonable driving distance of the once race crazed Bay Area, where auto racing in its heyday, and my youth, could be found within a stone’s throw of a person’s home three to four times a week.
Certainly NASCAR could have, if so inclined, have matched or bested any offer that the owners of Stockton 99 Speedway received from the developer. But they didn't. And I find no information that the organization even considered such a plan to maintain a weekly presence in the area. Clearly, local racing is no longer of any real importance to them. Undoubtedly, they are convinced that their future success does not depend on the health of regional tracks. In one sense, they may be correct; possibly the only direct losses will be suffered by those in the communities that no longer have the benefit of regular short-track entertainment.
I can offer no solution to the rapid decline in the number of local racetracks. But it is for real; many more are shutting down than being built. For tracks to continue to operate, they must be profitable, and this means that fans in the community’s surrounding tracks must show up weekly and purchase tickets. For whatever reason, this isn’t happening; sadly, fans are increasingly not supporting their local tracks. For track promoters and owners it has become a vicious circle of needing high car counts to attract an audience, yet needing revenue from solid ticket sales to attract high car counts. The dilemma only seems to be worsening, as a family's limited entertainment dollars are under heavy competition from more and more entertainment options.
Despite widespread criticism that it is too expensive to take a family to local races, I fail to find facts to support that belief. With adult admissions running between $12-$15 dollars in most areas of the country, children under 5-6 years of age admitted free, and tickets in the $5-$8 range for children up to 10-12 years old, a night at the local races still seems to be a bargain. But despite the reasonable prices, people who profess to love auto racing and short-track racing in particular are not supporting it in large numbers.
There are still local tracks operating in all areas of the U.S. However, they are fewer and further between. During my visit I did find that one such track from my youth was still operating. Antioch Speedway, a dirt bullring located on the property of the Contra Costa Fairgrounds, still exists, and I did get to enjoy an early-March race. But judging from the large number of empty seats, I have to wonder if it will be in existence during my next opportunity to recapture memories of my youth.
Perhaps progress is inevitable and the further decline of local racing entertainment is of no great consequence to the communities as a whole. And, no doubt, I have become a relic. But it truly is heartbreaking to me to know that children of future generations will not know the clean and wholesome enjoyment of local racing that I experienced as a child.
I engourage you, the readers, to share your personal thoughts and memories of tracks that have vanished from the landscape. Likewise, I urge race fans to help preserve the remaining tracks in their areas of the country by simply showing up and enjoying maybe the best, as well as one of the most economical entertainment outings a family can share together.
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